Initially, aluminum was mostly found in high-end models, like the Audi A8, but recently more of it has started to pop up in mass-market models, like the 2015 Ford F150 truck that will be mostly made of aluminum, reducing weight by 700 pounds compared to the previous model.
So, are aluminum cars really better for the environment? Many people are still skeptical. But Oak Ridge National Labs has looked into the matter and seems to confirm that they are.
Oak Ridge National Labs basically compared the whole life cycle of three different versions of the same vehicle: a normal, baseline vehicle; a lightweight, steel vehicle; and an aluminum-intensive vehicle. Their findings are that aluminum is absolutely worth it, with an energy break-even distance for their test vehicle of just 12,000 miles. That's an energy payback of just one year for the average person, and after that all energy savings are 100 percent net gains over a traditional, steel-based vehicle.
Oak Ridge Labs found that the aluminum vehicle has a mass that's about 25 percent lower than the baseline vehicle, which makes a pretty big difference on overall life cycle CO2 emissions (17 percent).
Aluminum also corrodes less than steel, so total useful life for vehicles could be lengthened, or at least money spent on maintenance and body work reduced. Another great thing about aluminum—and carbon fiber, which is also another great material to reduce weight without losing strength—is that it allows electric cars to have much longer range than if they were made out of steel.
So, it looks like there is solid evidence backing aluminum as a material of the future in the transportation sector. Over time, as costs are reduced, carbon fiber could join it to help further reduce weight and save energy.